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I.  The First Christmas I Can Remember

Age4

  The first Christmas I can remember clearly is the Christmas I heard Santa laugh and received my heart’s desire, the curly-haired Red Cross doll that beckoned to me from the display window of the Empire Drug Store.  The year was 1943 or 1944, and I was either four or five years old.  The War was still raging in Europe, and I was living with my parents in a two-bedroom rented bungalow on Fir Street in Longview, Washington. 

For many people in Longview, maintaining a household was a challenge during the War.  Goods and money were in short supply.  We used ration stamps when we paid at the grocery store, and we paid sales tax with tax tokens, little grey-green cardboard disks that had holes in their centers.  My father was a teacher, considered a necessary occupation at the time, and he also had bad feet and bad eyes, so he was not drafted into the military.  Thus, my family was better off than the families that lost their breadwinners to the military, but not by much; a teacher at the time did not take home much income.  With this in mind, I know now that expecting Santa to bring a Red Cross doll from the Empire Drug was a long shot. 

At the time, however, all I knew was that if Santa was true to his word and image, he had better have that doll in my arms by Christmas!   And every time my mother and I walked to town and passed the Empire Drug, I made sure that my mother knew I wanted that doll.  Each time I mentioned the doll, my mother told me that I would not get it, that Santa couldn’t afford to bring me an expensive doll like that because he had so many other children to supply with Christmas gifts.  Her explanation made sense to me, but it did not stop me from wanting the doll.  To complicate matters, I learned a few days before Christmas that we would not be home on Christmas Eve because we were going to another town to spend Christmas with friends.  Despite my mother’s reassurances that Santa would find me anywhere, I spent those days before the Big Day worrying and complaining, two activities that did not add to the holiday spirit of those around me, I’m sure.

Christmas Eve found us in the tiny, cigarette-smoke-filled bed-sitter of family friends.  All the adults were jovial, enjoying the bottles of cheer and their Camels, Luckies, and Pall Malls as they played their poker and bridge games, sat on each other’s laps, ate candies and cake, and listened to Bing sing “Adeste Fideles” and “Christmas in Killarney.”  At some point, I went to sleep on the living room carpet. 

I was awakened at midnight in time to hear the bells of Christmas bursting forth from the Philco.  Then I was hustled into my pajamas, somebody made me a bed on two kitchen chairs pushed together in a closet, somebody else safety-pinned a stocking to my pillow, and I was told to go to sleep.  By that time, however, I was wide-eyed and sleep was impossible.  Suddenly, as I feigned sleep, I heard a “Ho!  Ho!  Ho!  Has Jeanie been a good girl??”  Somebody replied in the affirmative, and then, as I lay there ever so still, a bundle was placed on the floor by my makeshift bed.  When I thought it was safe, I felt the bundle, felt the hair and the hat, and I knew Santa had found me and had fulfilled my dream.

I wish I could say I cherished that expensive doll, kept her in mint condition, and still had her to this day.  Alas, my childish curiosity got the best of me—and of her—and in my attempt to figure out how she opened and closed her eyes, I mutilated her beyond repair.  If only I’d had access to the Internet, that fount of all knowledge, I could have satisfied my curiosity without sacrificing the doll, but at the time computers were merely a gleam in the eye of their inventor, and nobody then probably even dreamed of traveling on the cyber highway.  So that Red Cross doll, which I named Mary Ann, met her end in the garbage can, and a disgruntled Santa never again made the mistake of bringing me a doll.

 

susan-seals

 

2.  The Family Christmas Tree

 

In addition to that memorable Christmas, there were others, of course, perhaps less memorable, when I was a child.  I may not be able to remember all those other Christmases in detail, but I can remember some Christmas generalities.  For example, my parents always had a real tree, and my mother made most of the ornaments until my brother and I were old enough to add our  clumsily-produced ornaments we made in school.  The first step in the process of decorating our tree was to anchor it in its stand.  That was my father’s job, and normally he accompanied his work with a lot of cursing and words I was not supposed to repeat.  In fact, sometimes my brother and I were sent on an errand while my father, a Lucky dangling from his lips—somehow he had mastered the art of cussing without letting his cigarette drop–put up the tree. 

After the tree was up and stable and watered, my brother and I made a multi-colored chain for it by cutting strips of colored paper and slathering on thick, mint-flavored white library paste to glue the links.  When the chain was about ten feet long, we did the best we could to drape it gracefully around the tree.  After the chain came the lights, not the tiny, twinkling lights of today but the old-fashioned larger multicolored lights—at least my family used those lights.  During the ‘50s, other families bought the Noma Bubblelights or the little twinkling lights, but my family continued to use the older lights because, as my mother claimed, they did the best job of making the tinsel glow. 

With the tree up, watered, garlanded, and lit, we took the next step, putting on the ornaments.  My mother was very picky about where the ornaments, the multicolored glass balls, especially, were to go.  She directed my brother and me, and we hung the balls.  After the balls, came the other ornaments, the school-made ornaments and the few spun-glass angel ornaments that my mother had saved from her own childhood trees.  To wrap up our tree-decorating, my mother carefully placed one or two strands of tinsel on the tip of each branch.  She would not let my brother or me do this because she said we were not careful enough; when we did this, the branches looked “clotted” with tinsel, in her opinion.  She was probably right because our tree each year was a piece of art, and the neighbors who came by with cookies and fudge always admired our tree and said they wished theirs were as beautiful.

 

 

3.  The Hadleys’ Tree

 

Looking back through time, I do believe that having the most beautiful or tastefully decorated tree on the block was extremely important to my mother, just as important to her as having a good figure and out-dressing the neighbor women must have been.  This competitive spirit was especially noticeable after the War, in the mid-1950s.  My parents owned the first television set on the block and the first Volkswagen sedan.  There was, however, one Christmas during which my mother’s tree was not the center of attention.  It may have been the most tasteful or the most symmetrically decorated, but it was not the most noticeable or the most talked-about tree in the neighborhood.  The tree that won those honors belonged to our next-door neighbors at the time, the Hadleys.

Herb and Dee Hadley moved into the home previously occupied by the Heuer family, a huge Irish-Catholic family who celebrated Christmas and New Years and every other special occasion by going to Mass and by consuming enormous quantities of food and alcohol.  To this day, when I hear the Old Groaner singing “Adeste Fideles” or “Ave Maria,” I am back in the Heuer’s steamy living room, overwhelmed by the number of bodies, the noise, the food and drink, and the mound of presents piled under their tree.  And there in the midst of all is tiny, prim-looking Jen Heuer, silver hair in a bun, directing traffic and shouting orders.  I remember that as I sit now in my little apartment, cats for company, and enjoy the silence.  To me, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, witnessing the Heuer family at Christmas was an experience I was not about to forget. 

Along with each holiday spectacle at the Heuer house came “the girls,” two of Jen’s granddaughters, Chauncy and Sue.  They were just about my age, and their presence was a definite “plus” in my holiday life.  First of all, both girls had black hair, pale pasty skin, and were covered by skin eruptions that they attributed to allergies.  In my household, nobody in the world had “allergies,” so this condition made Chauncy and Sue even more fascinating to me.  Also, the girls, both students at St. Rose’s Roman Catholic School, had a vast store of smutty stories, probably stories they overheard their uncles tell when they were in their cups.  As they said, when Mass became dull, they whispered these stories as a diversion.  Hail Mary had to take a back pew. The story-telling also gave them fodder for confession when they couldn’t think of anything else to confess.  However interesting the Heuer family may have been, though, I have digressed and strayed from the Hadley family and their tree.

When the Hadleys moved into the Heuer home early in the 1950s, then, Herb Hadley was a young man on the way up in the insurance business in Longview.  He was outgoing and jovial, two qualities that helped him climb the ladder, I’m sure.  His wife, Dee, had been a home economics major in college, and she gave him the support he needed in his career climb and cared for their children.  Herb had a competitive nature, and that quality served him well at work.  However, he also had to be the first on our block to try new ideas and to buy new products.  During the Christmas season of 1953, his competitive thrust hit a wall, however, because his Christmas tree became the joke of the neighborhood.

Before the mid fifties, people had green Christmas trees that were alive.  Oh, a very few people sprayed white snow on their trees, and they called that process “flocking,” but white trees were rare.  However, during the mid 1950s the stores were flooded with novelties—Noma Bubblelights, those cylindrical candle-shaped lights that contained a liquid that bubbled when they were turned on, plastic ornaments to replace the more fragile glass ornaments, animated ornaments, AND  Christmas trees that were flocked in exotic colors. 

Herb was not one to stick with the old tried-and-true; no, he was one who loved to try new things and to be first on the block with whatever took his fancy. So when he visited the feed store where the family normally bought their tree and discovered that the store was offering flocked trees in a dizzying array of colors, he decided to over-ride Dee’s order to buy a white flocked tree and instead be the first on the block to have a gold-flocked tree.  Feeling somewhat uneasy about his decision, however, he decided to surprise Dee and the kids.  His family’s squeals of delight at his surprise for them, would, he reasoned, justify his deviation from orders. 

The day of delivery arrived, and as Dee let the men from the feed store into the house, she was appalled.  She asked them if they were certain they had brought the right tree, and they were entirely certain.  And then, after the men had erected the tree and it stood in front of the big window in her dining room, she wept.  For there in all its glory, standing tall for everyone in the neighborhood to see, was a urine-yellow Norwegian spruce that looked as if monstrous male dogs had lifted their legs over every limb and needle. 

After she wept, she called my mother and me and told us to come as quickly as we could.  I can remember staring stunned at the tree, not knowing just what to say under the circumstances.  My mother, always practical, suggested that the best and simplest solution to the problem would be to gob as much decoration onto the tree as possible to hide the nasty color, and she offered to help by donating some of our ornaments.  By the time we left, Dee was laughing, but when Herb came home from work and expressed his amazement and disgust, she was crying again.  The kids, however, thought the tree was fine, and they took my mother’s advice and decked it so full of ornaments and tinsel that most of the limbs were hidden.

  By the time they got the presents heaped around the base, nobody could see much of the tree at all.  The story got around, however, and Dee had to tolerate the folks who stared at her dining room window, covering their mouths to hide their grins.  As far as I know, that was the last year Herb tried an innovation at Christmas time.  

4.  My Little Brother’s Mystery Gift 

Now that I think of it, this account of childhood Christmases would not be complete without the story of my brother Birck’s fourth Christmas, Christmas 1949.  Now, my little brother was an amazing child, with hand-eye coordination beyond his years.  And this particular Christmas he put this quality to good use.

As usual, our tree was an example of my mother’s artistic endeavors and was the envy of all the neighbors.  Birck was just four years old, and I was ten, going on eleven.  To us, the artistic quality of the tree was not nearly as important as the gaily-wrapped loot under the tree.  When the tree was first up and the presents had been placed under it, Birck and I began our work.  We separated the presents into piles, one pile for each family member, and we made sure of the location of our respective stacks.  Each day we inventoried our gifts to see if any had been added or if any were missing.  Birck and I always had more gifts than our parents, and we saw nothing wrong with that.  After all, kids were supposed to get more presents than their folks.  By the time Christmas Day finally rolled around, we had poked and prodded our gifts and had identified most of them. 

On this particular Christmas, however, there were several gifts that Birck could not identify.  I wasn’t any help.  One package, in particular, was about a foot long and half a foot wide and very heavy.  When we shook it, it didn’t rattle; the contents, instead, clunked!  I was as mystified as Birck by this bundle, but neither of us dared tear even a little piece of the wrapping.  If we had been caught doing that, our gifts would have been locked up until Christmas morning.  This mystery gift was, of course, the gift that Birck would open before any of the others.  No wonder—it was about the only present that was still a surprise! 

Christmas Eve came that year, finally, and late in the afternoon my mother, Birck, and I attended the candlelight service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal.  My mother normally did not set foot in any church, but she thought Birck should experience a few moments of Christianity once a year.  The portly old priest got through the service, and then he disappeared briefly, reappearing in a Santa suit.  He gave each of us a brown lunch sack containing a couple of huge oranges, some Brazil nuts, and a candy cane, and then we lit our candles, sang “Silent Night” in the candlelight, and walked home in the dark to our Christmas Eve dinner. 

Now, lest you imagine a huge Christmas Eve feast with prime rib, all sorts of vegetables, and pies, let me describe our customary meal.  First, because my mother was not one to dash around from activity to activity and spend time over a hot stove while trying to keep to a schedule, our dinner on Christmas Eve was extremely simple—lumpy cream of pea soup from a Campbell’s can,  singed toasted cheese sandwiches, carrot sticks, and fruitcake slices.  By the time we had walked home, usually in the rain, from the church service, we didn’t care that others may have been sitting down to roast beef and pie; we just wanted to get warm and fill our stomachs. 

Dinner over, we were allowed to open one gift each, and my mother selected the gifts we could open.   The present she gave Birck was not  the mystery gift, and no matter how Birck begged, she would not allow him to open that gift.  I can’t remember which gift he opened that night.  The gift she allowed me to open was from her two old maid artist friends in New York, Ruthie Dunbar and Mildred Stumer.  I groaned when I saw it because I thought I knew what it was.  And I was right:  two pink marzipan pigs surrounded by colorful marzipan flowers.  They always sent us marzipan pigs, and I didn’t even like marzipan! 

After that non-event, Birck and I were hustled off to bed early so Santa could have some wiggle-room.  Birck and I shared a room, so it took us a while to settle down.  I turned on my radio and put the headphones near my pillow so I could hear Christmas music, and then I fell asleep. 

On Christmas morning I awoke to curses and exclamations coming from my parents’ room.  The cause of their wrath was the banging and pounding coming from the stairs to the basement at five in the morning.  I followed them to the stairs.  There was Birck, clothed in his home-sewn white flannel nightgown, totally absorbed in his work of using the hammer from his brand new Christmas tool kit to nail tiny bits of kindling onto the steps of the basement stairs.  When I consider the task now, I am amazed at Birck’s ability to nail the tiniest bits of wood to a step without splitting the kindling.  At the time, however, my parents were definitely not amused or amazed.

I can’t remember exactly how they resolved the situation because I was eager to open my presents and didn’t pay much attention.  After all, it was Christmas morning!  And yes, the hammer Birck used on the basement steps was just one component of the mystery gift, a Handy Andy tool set for little carpenters, complete with apron. The kit also contained a saw, a small saw, but even at that, a saw that was still capable of marring the legs on our living room furniture.  The hammer and saw disappeared during the morning, but in the excitement of opening the other presents,  Birck didn’t miss them until the afternoon.  When he did miss them, my parents tried their best to locate them, they claimed, but the tools did not resurface until Birck was older and more inclined to follow the rules for their use. 

I can’t remember what Santa brought me that Christmas.  I don’t think that was the year I received the Morse Code key, but whatever I got must not have been too memorable.  I do remember Birck and the tool kit for little carpenters.  My parents did not give that to him.  I am sure that the person who did give it to him was on my parents’ hit list for the next few Christmases.  After opening our gifts that day, our house settled into its usual post-present quiet, and mid-afternoon we had our big Christmas feast of rump roast cooked until it was leathery and dry, grey peas, lumpy mashed potatoes, gelatinous gravy with scorched bits of meat floating on top, vibrant green Jello salad with carrots suspended in it, and mincemeat pie with ice cream on top.  After dinner, my parents napped, and Birck and I played with our toys and tried to stay awake.  Christmas night was an early night for all.

 

Christmas now is so different from the Christmases of my childhood, and sometimes I forget that modern kids want video games and I Pods and not electric trains and Shirley Temple dolls.  But the core of Christmas, the reason for Christmas, has remained the same for over two thousand years.  I need to hold onto that thought and let it guide me on my journey as the Star guided the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas!  And many more!

 Briviary

 

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Christmas 2014:  The following essay is off topic for this blog; it has nothing to do with Complex PTSD, really.  However, I enjoyed writing it and want to share it with you “just for fun.”  We all need some fun in our lives!  Enjoy!  Wishing you all the best for the season and healing in the New Year. 

Briviary

  
 Some Christmases are more memorable than others. I remember some Christmases because they were outstandingly good, and I remember others because they were outstandingly bad.  Wait a minute—a bad Christmas?  How can such a joyful day be bad?  Let me tell you—a bad Christmas is not hard to come by.  Christmas of 1983 is a case in point.  That was one bad Christmas!  Or was it? 

By Christmas of 1983, I had officially been divorced for three months, and I was busy adapting to my new legal status, that of a divorced, suddenly-single mother.  I was raising a daughter and was struggling to get my feet on the ground after having spent twenty years in a difficult marriage.  At the beginning of the divorce process, my husband and I had owned two homes, one with a mortgage and one that we owned outright and were using as a rental.  I was allowed to choose which of our homes I wanted, so I chose the home in town with the mortgage.   

Thus, I became sole owner of the home on L Street in Centralia, Washington.  Once the divorce papers were finalized, I sold the rolling pasture land that fronted on the Skookumchuck River to my neighbor and paid off the mortgage.  Because I had lost my job in 1981 and was supporting my daughter and me on unemployment checks, child support,  and the generosity of the Salvation Army food bank where I worked as a volunteer, I needed to reduce my monthly outgo. My neighbor wanted the pasture for her horses, and I needed relief from the mortgage payments.  The sale, then, was a good deal for both my neighbor and me. 

After selling my pasture, I investigated the possibility of taking out a home improvement loan through the Farmers’ Home Administration because my house, built early in the 1900s, needed a lot of work.   I applied for the loan and was accepted into the program.  Since it was a government loan for low-income home owners in rural areas, I could afford the monthly payments.  My home had been built at a time when many homes in the area were built using post and pier construction and were not built upon concrete foundations.  Thus, the first task of the contractor was to put a concrete foundation under my house.  In the early part of December, then, my neighbor, a licensed contractor named Fred, started on the foundation.  

This process was slow because Fred had to jack the house up in order to do his work beneath it, and the house had to be high enough to accommodate the foundation work he did around the perimeter.  When he jacked the house up, he exposed its underbelly to the elements, so he had to close up the crawl space at the end of each workday by placing sheets of plywood along the lower margins of the outside walls.  The plywood kept out the cold and the wind and also most of the nocturnal creatures that came up from the nearby gully each evening.  There was, however, one evening when Fred forgot to protect the underside of my house, the evening of December 23rd.   

On December 23rd, we had a terrific cold snap, unusual for the Chehalis River valley.  That night the temperature dipped to about ten above zero, and as I slept, the cold air entered the unprotected crawl space.  I awoke to a big surprise—water had frozen in all the rusty old pipes beneath the house, no water came from any taps, and we could not flush the toilet.  My son was home from college at the time, so he and his sister drove to my ex in-laws’ home south of Chehalis to spend the holiday.  I knew they would be welcome there even if I was not.  

I was left by myself, then, to feed our pets, tend the frozen pipes, and spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a house with no running water and no drainage—not the usual Merry Christmas situation.  In the process of overcoming life’s adversities, however,  I had learned to favor the glass- half-full approach to life,  and I determined to have as merry a Christmas as possible under the circumstances.  After all, I had two wonderful children, a roof over my head, sufficient groceries, and it was Christmas!  I considered myself fortunate. 

Thanks to the folks at the Salvation Army, I had a small Christmas tree and one of the Salvation Army’s Christmas food baskets.  My tree was about four feet tall and scrawny, but it had lights on it and lots of home-made decorations.  Under the lowest limbs were three presents, one from my ex mother-in-law, one from my son, and one from the Salvation Army.  So not only did I have a tree, but I had some presents and the makings of a nice Christmas dinner, complete with a roasting hen, fresh vegetables, a few oranges and apples, some instant stuffing mix, various canned goods, and some candy.   As I surveyed my tree with its presents and thought about the special dinner I would cook on Christmas Day, I felt happy with what I had.  Some folks in Lewis County had a lot less than I did.  

The afternoon of December 24th arrived with no letup in the cold.  I planned to sing in the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Christmas Eve service, and I needed to be at the church by about 8:30 that night.  I fixed myself some dinner, put on my dress, pantyhose, and shoes, and donned my long raincoat.  By around eight in the evening I was on my way, hoping to make it to the church in time for the pre-service choir warmup before the late-night service.  The church was about twelve blocks from my home, but the night was clear, so the prospect of the walk didn’t bother me. 

I was about halfway to the church, walking past the Rock Street Apartments, when it happened—I felt something around my waist shift dramatically, and my pantyhose suddenly slithered down my hips, past my thighs, and to my knees, hobbling me as surely as if I were Farmer Jones’ favorite mare.  I managed to remain upright despite suddenly being rendered immobile, and I was able to put my hands into my raincoat pockets, hunch down, and pull my pantyhose up high enough so I could walk.   

I repeated this procedure the rest of the way, and when I reached the church, I slipped into the restroom unnoticed, reefed mightily on the errant hose, and prayed they would stay put.  Yet to come were the choir procession, the service, and the recessional, but I was not too worried, for the ugly old ankle-length black robes we wore would, I knew, hide whatever might happen.  One way or another, I would get through the service. 

All went well during the service, and when it was over, I took off the hose and started for home.  I did, however, make one change in my route.  I decided to reward myself for a job well done by stopping at the convenience store on Tower Avenue and treating myself to some chicken and jo-jos, food I had heard about but had never tried.  I wasn’t sure the store would be open late on Christmas Eve, but I decided to at least check to see.  It was open!  Never before had the aroma of deep-fried chicken and fried potatoes been so welcome!  A heavy-lidded young man with red hair wrapped my chicken and Jo-jos, I paid for them, and I left, wishing him a Merry Christmas but knowing that he was probably finding Christmas Eve at the Stop-N-Go a lot more boring than merry.  I reached home before eleven-thirty, and after changing into my nightclothes, I turned on the television to Seattle station KING so I could watch the Christmas Eve service broadcast from St. Mark’s Cathedral and enjoy my greasy treat.  

And then the improbable happened:  Exactly on the stroke of midnight, just as the choir at St. Mark’s began processing toward the altar for Holy Communion, I heard a loud “whoosh” come from somewhere under the house.  I ventured cautiously outside to investigate and discovered that we had had a sudden Chinook which had warmed the air, even the air under the house, and had caused a mighty thaw that had cracked the ancient pipes and released a flood of water.  I ran back into the house and grabbed my huge pipewrench and  prybar, and then I ran back outside, pried  the concrete cover from the water main by the street, and turned the bolt that shut off the water.  Since there was nothing more I could do about the plumbing situation, I trudged back into the house, watched the rest of the service from St. Marks, finished my chicken and jo-jos, and went to bed. 

On Christmas morning I awoke to a cold, dark, rainy day.  Determined to have my coffee on that special morning, I put on my boots, grabbed a relatively clean plastic bucket from the utility porch, and traipsed through the soggy grass to the faucet at Fred’s horse barn.  I filled the bucket and returned home to make coffee .  As I drank my coffee and ate the sweet rolls I found in my Salvation Army box, I forgot the mess under my house and the fact that I couldn’t flush the toilet or get a shower and simply enjoyed the peace and quiet of Christmas.   

Later, I roasted the Salvation Army chicken and enjoyed Christmas dinner in front of the television as I watched the old version of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the one starring young Natalie Wood, my favorite.  I indulged myself and slept on the couch that night so I could watch movies until I fell asleep, something I normally did not do.  Sometime that night, one of the cats, back from a hunting trip, left me a still-squeaking mouse on the kitchen floor.  I awoke long enough to gently deposit the mouse on the grass outside the carport, and then I went back to sleep.   

The plumbing situation got a temporary fix the day after Christmas, my kids came home, and life resumed its familiar pace and rhythm once more.  A few days later, when I looked back on  my Christmas, I realized that it had not been so awful.  After all, I had been able to sing in the choir and eat jo-jos on Christmas Eve.  I had also enjoyed my well-lit Christmas tree, had watched the sentimental old holiday movies I loved, and had eaten a great Christmas dinner.  The plumbing disaster and being hobbled by my pantyhose seemed like minor irritants, mere flickers of bad luck in the total scheme of things.  No, that Christmas of 1983 hadn’t been so bad after all!
 

 

 

 

 

 

cowboy

Cowboy, that ego state within me who flies into action when action is called for, has made a vow:  She is determined to spread the word that C-PTSD is real, that it does certainly exist, and that it can be, given the right circumstances, healed!  So–why would Cowboy feel the need to spread the word regarding C-PTSD? Of course, C-PTSD is real!  Those of us who have been diagnosed with the condition and those wonderful therapists who help people heal from C-PTSD all know that the condition/disorder exists!  Why the need to convince anyone?  Don’t all mental health professionals accept the fact that C-PTSD exists??  The short answer to this last question is a resounding “No!”  And how do I know this?

As my readers are aware, I relocated a year ago from Portland, Oregon, to a small town in Oregon’s northern neighbor, the state of Washington.  Actually, I now live in Lewis County, Washington, in the town of Chehalis, to be exact.  If you look on a map, you will see that the area where I live is directly north of Portland, on I-5.  The trip to Portland by train takes about two hours, and the trip by car is about the same.  As you see, Lewis County is physically not very far from Portland, but the miles between the two places represent a huge disconnect when it comes to the attitude of professionals toward C-PTSD.

When I lived in Portland, I had no problem finding a therapist who treated clients suffering from psychological trauma damage, and I had little trouble finding a therapist who gave me an accurate diagnosis of C-PTSD.  The “Psychology Today” list of Portland professionals treating PTSD and trauma-related conditions is almost thirty pages long.  In contrast, when I did a search today in the same data base but typed in “Lewis County, Washington” rather than Portland, Oregon, a list of nine therapists came up.  Of those nine therapists, four actually had their offices in Lewis County.  The others had offices in neighboring counties.

Of the four therapists who were actually local therapists and who were listed as treating PTSD and trauma, all listed short-term behavioral therapy, DBT, and CBT among their modalities of preference.  None listed EMDR or Ego State Therapy.  And EMDR is a treatment accepted by the Veterans’ Administration as being effective in treating PTSD!  Where several of the therapists in nearby Thurston county said they treated C-PTSD, none of the four therapists in Lewis County listed C-PTSD as a condition they treated.  Why??  The answer is very simple:  C-PTSD is not a disorder found in the DSM-V!  PTSD is in the book, but C-PTSD is not.  And if it’s not listed in the DSM, the disorder doesn’t exist–for all practical purposes.  Or, well, C-PTSD exists in Portland, but it doesn’t exist in Lewis County, Washington.  Odd, isn’t it, that the disorder can exist in one location but not in another??

I know Lewis County’s population is small (75,081 souls) compared to that of Portland (2,314,854 metro area), Oregon, but aren’t there any people in Lewis county who have C-PTSD and need therapy for it?  According to the listing, it would appear that there are no people who have this condition in Lewis County and there is no need for therapists who are trained to treat the disorder.  However, if we prowl around beneath the surface, the picture looks a bit different.

 

When I arrived in Chehalis last December, I began a casual survey of the therapists here.  First, I sent out flyers to every therapist listed in Chehalis and Centralia, the two major population centers in the county.  On the flyer I advertised myself as being willing to speak from experience on the topic of C-PTSD and the healing process, and I made sure to add that I would charge no fee for doing this.  Of the fifteen or so flyers I sent out, I received one response.  That came from the head of one of our major public mental health clinics.  She responded that the modality of choice at her clinic is short-term behavioral therapy, CBT.  She added that if she encounters a person with obvious trauma damage, then she refers that person to somebody outside her clinic, usually.  Public funding does not normally cover the long-term therapy that trauma work requires.  She added that she would keep my offer in mind for the future.

Her response was the sole response I received.  I was disappointed, of course, to receive just the one response, but at least I then had some idea as to which way the wind blew. I concluded, probably accurately, that the government does not want to pay for long-term therapy, and from my own experience with C-PTSD I know that short-term behavioral therapy would not have helped me get to the roots of my trauma damage and heal.  Also, others who blog on their journey to heal C-PTSD normally have been engaged in the process for a long time, and they talk about the complexity of their process, the necessity of a trusting and long-term relationship with a competent therapist, and all the ups and downs of their process.  In other words, for these other bloggers, a short-term DBT or CBT approach would not really meet their needs anymore than it would have met my needs.

Not a person to give up easily once I “get the bit in my mouth”–pardon the rural and equine reference!–I took my survey further and went through the phone list of therapists in Lewis County.  I decided to limit my inquiry to only those therapists who were able to answer my call in person–I’d had too many experiences with failed call-backs to trust that leaving a message would get results–and of the four therapists I talked to, three did not treat trauma patients at all.  One therapist told me that she did not have the time to treat trauma patients/people with C-PTSD, and she referred those people to a clinic in neighboring Thurston county, a county with a larger population and a higher average education level than Lewis County.  Well, at least she allowed for the possible existence of C-PTSD.  That was encouraging!

Curious, I looked at the list of therapists in the Olympia area and discovered that there are several therapists who treat C-PTSD in Olympia.  Not only that, but there is actually a clinic that specializes in treating people with PTSD and C-PTSD.  So C-PTSD exists in Thurston County and is deemed treatable in Thurston County, but it does not exist in Lewis county?  Interesting!  Yes, very interesting, in fact!  From this discovery and from the informal information-gathering I have done, I can probably conclude with some accuracy that 1. in larger population areas where the income and educational levels are higher than in Lewis County, there is more likelihood that people with Complex PTSD can find appropriate help, and 2. there is a huge need for education among professionals and non-professionals here in Lewis county regarding the causes, symptoms, and healing of Complex PTSD.  I can also conclude that I’m damned lucky to have found the help I needed and to have healed to the point that I have healed BEFORE moving to Lewis County!!   Amen to that!!

 

 Why do I believe that, despite the refusal of most professionals here to admit to the existence of C-PTSD, there are people here who are suffering the effects of the condition?  For one thing, if Judith L. Herman, M.D. (“Complex PTSD: A Syndrome in Survivors of Prolonged and Repeated Trauma.”  Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1992) is to be believed–and I do believe her!–suffering prolonged child abuse and also being victimized for years in a domestic violence situation often leads to a person’s developing Complex PTSD.  Common sense and the fact that no fewer than five agencies are listed when I searched for county agencies that help domestic violence victims tell me that there are plenty of residents here who possibly are long-term victims of abuse.  Child sexual abuse?  When I lived here in 1981, a professional who worked for the local Department of Social and Health Services told me that Lewis County, Washington, ranked seventh in the nation for the reported cases of incest.  Unreported cases??  No figure available.  Presently, this county and neighboring Cowlitz County, both what might be called “rural” counties, are hotbeds of drug abuse, particularly hotbeds of meth production and use.  And along with meth abuse come child neglect/abuse and domestic violence.

With the above in mind, then, I wager that plenty of people here in Lewis County are wandering around suffering the symptoms of a disorder that is not recognized as legitimate by the bulk of the professionals in the county: “C-PTSD is not in the DSM-V;  it doesn’t exist;  why would or should we treat it?”  Of course, there is the practical reason for not treating C-PTSD:  If it is not specifically listed as a disorder in the DSM, then there may be no reimbursement by insurances.  But folks in more urban areas are treated for C-PTSD, and their treatment is paid for by their insurance, including by Medicare.  All I can say with certainty is that I have been diagnosed as having C-PTSD, I received the long-term help I needed, and that help was paid for by Medicare and my Medicare supplement.  Other people I have known with the diagnosis of C-PTSD have had their therapy paid for by their private insurance.  But these people have not lived in rural areas!

No, the general attitude here in Lewis County is that C-PTSD does not exist as a legitimate diagnosis and, therefore, nobody has the disorder.  When I asked the head of the largest public mental health facility here how she would have treated me had I presented with the symptoms of C-PTSD, she replied that I would have been medicated and given short-term behavioral therapy.  When I asked her if she would have given me a diagnosis of C-PTSD, she just stared at me and did not reply.  As I said earlier, I’m damned glad I did not relocate to this area until AFTER I had been treated for C-PTSD!

So is there anything I can do to help bring about a change in the way people here in Lewis County regard–or disregard!–Complex PTSD?  As a nonprofessional but also as a person who has been diagnosed with Complex PTSD and who has been successfully treated for the disorder, all I can do is tell people about my own individual experience and hope that at least a few of my listeners and any local readers of my blog take me seriously enough to find out for themselves that C-PTSD does indeed exist.  Maybe these people will wonder, as I do, why they are stonewalled when they bring up the subject with local professionals.  This is a sad, sad situation, and I can only pray that eventually it will change.

There is one huge step that can be taken, however, that will do more than anything else to bring about change in the local attitude regarding the existence of C-PTSD:  Include C-PTSD/DESNOS in the DSM-VI!!  That would be the logical first step!  The second step would be to make education and training in effective methods for treating C-PTSD/DESNOS available to local therapists.  I’m almost seventy-six years old and may not be alive to see the day C-PTSD is included in the manual or to see any of the local therapists who do not believe the disorder exists accept that it does exist and receive training in its treatment, but if that day ever comes, I can guarantee that there will be clients right here in Lewis county to keep those therapists as busy as they want to be!

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I plan to do as much as I can to educate people in this community regarding Complex PTSD.  I know, at the same time, that what I have to say will fall on a lot of deaf ears.  However, in the hope that maybe a few people will listen, become interested in the topic, and do some local investigating, making the effort to educate is worth my expenditure of energy.  This time next year I’ll let you know what results from my efforts!  Have a wonderful holiday season and a great New Year!

 

 

Note:  My 2012 post of this same topic should appear below this post.  Same general topic–different information.  Important reading for all you who have been diagnosed with C-PTSD!  And for anyone who knows a person with the diagnosis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please Note:  I first published this post in 2012, a time when the DSM-IV was being revised prior to publication of the DSM-V.  Unfortunately, C-PTSD/DESNOS was not accepted into the DSM-V as a distinct diagnosis.  As a result, the existence of this disorder has been denied by some professionals, and people who may be suffering from the disorder are having a tough time getting the treatment they need in order to heal.  Today, December 8th, 2014, I wrote a followup to this article and described what I have discovered as I have become aware of the prevailing attitude held by professionals here where I am living now, a small town in a rural area in Washington state.  As I see it, the only thing that will bring about a more general acceptance of C-PTSD/DESNOS and will possibly lead to more effective treatment of people who have abuse-caused C-PTSD is inclusion in the next edition of the DSM, DSM-VI.  If you can do anything to insure the inclusion of C-PTSD/DESNOS in the manual, please do it!  As you will read in the post I wrote today, I am going to try my best to help the cause.  Please join me in any way you can!  Thank you .  .  . Jean
 

April, 2012

 

The other day I read an article by Bessel A. van der Kolk M.D. titled “The Assessment and Treatment of Complex PTSD.” * The article was long and somewhat difficult for me to read because I am not a trained mental health professional and am not used to reading articles written in APA style by high-powered researchers and doctors, but I did my best to get through it with some understanding of its main points. Since Bessel A. van der Kolk is a pioneer in the field of PTSD research and treatment, I read his articles with interest whenever I come across them. *(To find this article, type the title into Google.)

Bessel van der Kolk’s article interested me for several reasons, among them 1. the fact that the people who put together and publish the DSM have not listed Complex PTSD as a diagnosis in itself but are presently considering including “Complex PTSD” as a separate diagnostic category in the DSM V and 2. the fact that many people with symptoms and histories that indicate the presence of Complex PTSD must presently be given a diagnosis of PTSD or “prolonged PTSD” when the Complex PTSD diagnosis might more accurately describe their condition. Here is the Wickipedia definition of C-PTSD: “Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma with lack or loss of control, disempowerment, and in the context of either captivity or entrapment, . . .” (To find the complete Wickipedia definition and other definitions, type “complex ptsd definition” into Google.)

After I finished reading the van der Kolk article and had some time to reflect upon the reading, I experienced sadness, a sadness of the sort that happens when one might see himself or herself described so clinically in writing. Bessel van der Kolk had described certain aspects of my psychological makeup better than I could describe them—the low self-esteem, the tendency to overreact internally to certain interpersonal interactions that don’t seem to bother other people, my past tendency toward self harm during times of high stress due to interpersonal interactions, all the common PTSD symptoms, and so forth. I wrestled with the sadness for a few days, and then it lifted. I was left wondering if maybe reading journal articles on PTSD should be written into my list of “things NOT to do.” However, I know that the next time I see an interesting-looking article on PTSD, I’ll probably read it, especially if it is written by Bessel A. van der Kolk. My desire to know always trumps potential discomfort.

Another person whose articles I usually read is Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. A few days before I read the van der Kolk article, I had read Herman’s article titled “Complex PTSD: A Syndrome in Survivors of Prolonged and Repeated Trauma.”* Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk state many of the same points in their articles, but they state them differently. I found Judith Herman’s article easier to read because it is written using somewhat less clinical terminology and a more narrative style than that of Bessel van der Kolk. However, both authors make a point of emphasizing the fact that the presence of Complex PTSD, in the past often associated mainly with people returning home from battle, is also frequently found in people who have never seen a military battlefield but who have experienced prolonged neglect and abuse on the “family battlefield” as children and then possibly later as battered spouses, members of a cult, or prisoners. According to both van der Kolk and Herman, a few of the factors that appear to lay the foundation for Complex PTSD on this non-military “battlefield” are the prolonged nature of the abuse; the ongoing and overwhelming sense of powerlessness and hopelessness experienced by the victim; a prolonged state of being held captive, whether the captivity be in a concentration camp, a cult, or a family setting; and chronic repeated traumatization. *(Judith Herman’s article is also available if you type the title into Google.)

As one might imagine, treating a person suffering from Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is, according to both authors, more complicated than treating PTSD brought on by a single traumatic occurrence. Van der Kolk, in his article, presents a list of steps used in treating PTSD and then presents a revised list that includes similar steps with modifications for treating C-PTSD. The complex nature of C-PTSD, of course, was no news to me! I’ve been chewing away at the treatment process now for decades, much of the time trying to do the job on my own—for the most part, futility in action, I discovered. Now that I have found a therapist with the skills and experience necessary to help me, I realize the impossibility of trying to “fix” myself without knowing how and without help. A person with C-PTSD or PTSD must have skilled help; the job is not a do-it-yourself project nor is it a project that should be left to therapists who do not have the skill or knowledge base necessary to effectively treat C-PTSD/PTSD victims!

After reading the two articles and recognizing my own history and symptoms in both, I have a clearer understanding of where I am and where I need to go. Frankly, I’m not sure that I will “get there” before I die, a disconcerting reality to face! Can I repair the damages of the first forty years of my life in just, say, five years? Probably not. However, any progress I make in the process of trying to repair the damages is to the good and will make my life better in some way. I believe that. I must believe that! I do have evidence for the truth of this belief because since I’ve been in therapy, I can stay in the moment, usually, when somebody acts out on public transportation. A year ago that was not the case. Since I have no car and must, therefore, use public transportation to get from one place to the other, I am really happy that this part of my life has improved!

To return to the original question as posed in the title to this article—Complex PTSD: Does It Exist?—my short answer is “Certainly it does, and I have the marks to prove it!” Obviously, Bessel A. van der Kolk, Judith Lewis Herman, and a host of other experts also believe that Complex PTSD not only exists but exists as a diagnosis in itself, a condition that has many of the same characteristics as PTSD but yet is not exactly like PTSD in certain important respects. Perhaps establishing a diagnostic category called C-PTSD isn’t important to everyone with PTSD, but it is important to me. If I am going to be diagnosed and labeled, I want my diagnosis and label to describe my condition as accurately as possible. Thus, I hope to see Complex PTSD listed as a diagnostic category in the DSM V when it is published in 2013.